Private or public schools: “Best of which is bitter” for Syrian children in Lebanon
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
For the past three months, and before the start of the current academic year in Lebanese schools, 30-year-old Syrian woman Fatima carried the burden of enrolling her children Mohammad and Amira in a private school due to the difficulties they faced in registering in government schools, such as bullying and evening classes, in addition to the frequent interruptions to education in those schools in recent years.
Admitting the 7-year-old Mohammad to the second grade and the 5-year-old Amira to the 3rd grade in kindergarten required exorbitant costs that burdened the family and forced the family for months to economize on purchasing necessities and limit them to basic materials commensurate with the salary of Fatima’s husband, who earns about $200 a month from his work on a farm.
Choosing a private school is not a luxury for Syrians in Lebanon, as much as it is one of two “bitter” options, according to Syrian families who spoke to Enab Baladi, as the “deteriorating” conditions of public schools are enough to force families to abandon them.
The lack of vision of the education sector and its problems, the absence of registration standards between one school and another, payment in dollars instead of the specified Lebanese currency for dealing, and “the people’s cry over the high tuition fees” as described by the Lebanese Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, had double effects on the Syrians in Lebanon, amid the suffering this country is experiencing and the successive crises and deteriorating economic and political conditions.
There is no official figure for the number of Syrian students in Lebanese schools, and in the latest statistics from the Lebanese Statistics Center in 2019, the percentage of Syrian students was 20% of Lebanese students.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Lebanon hosts 660,000 Syrian refugee children of school age in its latest report at the end of 2021.
The United Nations estimates that 30% of the aforementioned number, i.e., 200,000 children, have never gone to school and that 60% have not been registered in schools during the past years.
Payment in dollars
Fatima paid $400 as a tuition fee for her child, Mohammad, and $375 for her child, Amira, during the year, divided into payments determined by the school, and a registration fee for each child of $10, in addition to $15 for the school as an allowance for papers and publications.
The mother bought books for the child worth $75 because the kindergarten requires the student to have new books.
The family was able to secure used books for Mohammad with the help of the director of the private school in the town of Saadiyat, 26 kilometers from the capital, Beirut, but he was forced to buy a new mathematics book worth $13.
The woman has not yet confirmed the news circulating about the school requesting a student uniform worth about $20, and she wants to dress her two children in last year’s uniform, which she bought at the time for ten dollars.
Each private school imposes its own school uniform that is different from other schools, and if a student is transferred from one school to another, he must buy a new uniform.
In addition to the above, the cost of purchasing stationery is $30, and $150 is the bus fare for each student annually, and the cost increases depending on the distance of the area from the school.
After a rough calculation conducted by Fatima, she said that the cost of enrolling two children in a private school in Lebanon is equivalent to the family’s work for six months if the family does not spend a single dollar from the salary.
Private schools in Lebanon determine tuition prices in dollars and issue regulations to that effect, despite previous talk since the beginning of the 2022-2023 academic year by the Minister of Education and Higher Education in Lebanon, Abbas al-Halabi, that tuition fees in private schools should be paid in Lebanese pounds.
This did not prevent the imposition of paying school fees in dollars, despite al-Halabi’s decision, which carried several caveats, exceeding which would be considered a legal violation, stating that non-free private schools may not impose any amounts, whatever their name and whatever their amounts, on the guardians of students enrolled in them, in addition to the school tuition that it gets from all of them.
The Lebanese pound is witnessing a significant decline in its value against the US dollar, and every 89,000 Lebanese pounds is equal to a US dollar.
Evening government schools without integration
For his part, Hussein, 33, is still hesitating between enrolling his child Ali (eight years old) in the second grade and his daughter Samar (four years old) in the 3ed grade of kindergarten in the Keserwan area or not registering them because of the “scary” tuition fees, according to what he said.
He stated that his work in a restaurant with a salary of about 220 US dollars could not cover the registration fees and that the evening hours of government schools were exhausting for the students and the parents, and isolating the Syrian students from the Lebanese in them did not bring any positive results.
The evening education period extends for four hours, from two in the afternoon until six in the evening, without rest times for students, which weakens the quality of education and the ability of students to receive information.
In addition, many students were forced to return late to their homes due to the long distance between school and their families’ places of residence and the lack of transportation, according to a study issued by the Center for Lebanese Studies (CLS).
The Ministry of Education previously said that it would not accept any attempt to integrate displaced students and settle them through the private educational sector, and described the integration of Syrian students in private schools as “disguised resettlement,” and considered that its decision comes from “a clear national and educational policy, which requires returning the displaced to safe areas in Syria, which are many.”
Regarding the alternatives, Hussein is torn between borrowing money to enroll Ali and Samar in a private school or keeping them at home and receiving some education from their mother until “things settle down,” according to him.
The Syrian man noted that Ali was supposed to be in the third grade, but he was a year late from previously enrolling in kindergarten due to the family’s financial inability, which gave him an additional year of study.
Public and private schools in Lebanon set a condition for accepting any student into the first grade, which is that he must complete studies in one kindergarten class as a minimum from among the kindergarten classes that start with the first grade at the age of three years, the second grade at the age of four, and the third grade at the age of five years.
School paper spiral
Many Syrians avoid registering their children in government schools because the papers required to begin registration are many and unavailable, including residency settlement and other papers that are difficult to secure, and every year, humanitarian organizations intervene to pressure the Ministry of Education to bypass them.
Before the start of the school year, hate and racist campaigns appear against Syrian students in Lebanon, led by pages on social networking sites.
These include signs on the roads stating that “the Syrians occupied Lebanese schools” and are fueled by a general political atmosphere that wants the Syrians to return to their country.
The Minister of Education, Abbas al-Halabi, expressed his surprise, through a statement, on September 12, at the ministry’s accusation of racism and inhumanity regarding the measures related to registering “displaced persons” in public schools and the documents required of them.
The minister said that he is convinced of the right of every student on Lebanese territory to access quality education and that the required papers are based on the legal texts in registration.
Al-Halabi wondered where is the racism and inhumanity in educating displaced people and did this alleged racism prevented the number of “displaced people” in public schools from growing during his reign to reach 200,000, while before him, there were about 170,000 “displaced people,” and he has been Minister of Education since September 2021.
The Lebanese Ministry of Education obstructed the entry of Syrian students into schools by preventing students from taking school exams without submitting official papers, which forced many Syrian families to pay amounts beyond their means and return to Syria in dangerous conditions to obtain official documents, according to a Human Rights Watch report issued in 2021.
The 2022-2023 academic year witnessed various disturbances that affected the course of education for at least two months, affecting more than 450,000 children (from kindergarten to twelfth grade), according to what UNICEF stated in a statement on August 16 of last year.
The organization said that despite the support it provides, “the financial crisis continues to intensify, which increases the risk of educational disruptions in the next academic year, especially if teachers and employees in the educational sector do not receive appropriate wages that guarantee them a decent living.”
The former director of the General Directorate of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, estimated the number of Syrians in Lebanon at two million people and 80,000 Syrians, while the former Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, estimated their number at 1.5 million, but the UNHCR documents 865,531 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
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